Should Colleges Force Students To Turn Their Cameras On?

What about students who do not wish to share their image?


Zoom University will soon be in session. I suspect many faculties are wrangling with an issue: should students be forced to turn their cameras on during class?

I can see several arguments in favor of requiring students to turn on their cameras. First, if students know they are being watched, they are more likely to stay in one place and pay attention. If cameras are off, students may "listen" to the class while moving around. Second, a professor is better able to gauge a student's understanding by looking at his or her face. I think facial cues are generally overrated, but some students make it very, very obvious when they are confused. That look of frustration does not come through with an avatar.

Third, the camera helps to ensure integrity of attendance rules. You could imagine a student logs into class, then goes for a walk outside. The camera helps the professor know that the student was seated for the entire class. However, what happens if a student has to go to the bathroom for a minute? If the professor sees an empty chair, should the student be marked absent? I have never cared when students go to the bathroom, but some professors prohibit it, unless the student has a medical excuse. I suppose those same professors could ask a student to sit in front of the computer for the entire class, absent some accommodation.

There are several arguments against requiring students to turn on their cameras. First, and foremost, is privacy. There is no easy way to prevent a Zoom meeting from being recorded. And anything recorded on Zoom can immediately be posted on social media. Some students may not want their voice and image blasted on the internet, for a host of reasons. I suspect that such actions may violate FERPA. As I understand it, class recordings in which a student can be identified is considered an educational recording. Therefore, posting a recording from a class may very well violate federal law, as well as other possible state laws.

Second, students may not wish to have their backgrounds visible to others. I have heard the phrase "space-shaming" used. Some students may have to take a Zoom class from a closet, or in a bathroom, or other environment that is not suitable for sharing. They do not wish to be shamed by their classmates, or worse, a professor who asks "Why are you sitting on a toilet." I think this concern is legitimate. Virtual backgrounds may help, but they are not perfect. When the student moves around, sometimes the real background pops up. Perhaps a green screen could help? But those are not always feasible to install. Students should be able to opt-out of being forced to turn on the camera.

Third, there is a technological problem. Generally, most internet connections have faster bandwidth for downloads than for uploads. That is, watching a streaming video is easier than streaming a video. When students have their cameras on, they are simultaneously uploading and downloading data. Last spring, many professors and students had to turn their cameras off so they would not be disconnected. That problem will likely recur. There is a way around this problem. Zoom lets you handle audio and video separately. You can listen and talk to the call over your regular phone line. That connection is stable, and does not depend on wifi. If for whatever reason, your internet connection drops, and the video cuts out, you can continue to listen and speak. I am going to recommend my students with bandwidth problems use this hybrid approach: dial the local phone number on your phone, and watch the video from your laptop.

I can see the pros and cons. I think the general policy should be that professors have the discretion to ask their students to turn on their cameras, but students can ask the professor to opt out. If there are concerns about attendance, a professor can drop an "easter egg" at a specific point to ensure the student watched the entire class.

Update: Here is a photo of the "green screen" I mentioned:

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  1. "But my cameras is broken" -- and trust me, it would be.

    I don't see why this isn't a privacy violation -- in a regular class all you get to see is the back of people's heads, and that is if you sit in the back of the room. I could also see an attractive female student making it a sexual harassment issue -- some feminists claim that they have an affirmative right not to have male students oogle them.

    As an aside, I would strongly caution you NOT to have a concurrent telephone and computer connection to zoom. The problem is that they won't quite be in synch -- the internet is a little bit slower and that's not a problem on a concurrent one-way transmission. But when you have two-way, you can get feedback where the microphone starts repeating the speaker and you get really bad problems. Same thing as the screeching noises if a microphone picks up the PA speaker, although I think there is worse.

    The local government explicitly requests people to use phone or internet, but not both because of problems it has caused them.

    1. As an aside it is not like you can mute the volume on one, or both, of the connections.

      1. I'm not sure that will work because the computer still "hears" the audio, it just |/dev/null it. Eventually. I'd need to both see the actual code *and * understand it, but I've seen funky things happen with far less.

  2. My policy when lecturing was "I don't care how you spend your [parents'] money."

  3. None of the pros seem meaningful to me.

    1. Attendance requirements are absurd, at least in my view. I am paying to learn, you are getting paid to teach, I SHOULD be graded on what I learn. Not how or when I learn it. Attendance at lectures may further learning but that is for the student to decide on his/her own. If I learn the material why does it matter if sat through your lecture? No one is harmed by a student not attending except possibly the student. And if that happens that is their fault. Why are we trying to mandate away personal responsibility? And what of the students are actually are "harmed" by mandated attendance. The ones who don't really learn well in a lecture environment and now are losing time that they could be learning in a way more conducive to them?

    2. If a student is confused it is again his/her responsibility to speak up and ask questions. This is even less of a pro when you realize that paying attention to dozens if not over hundred faces is nigh impossible over the internet. Even with the fifteen billion monitors you suggest teachers set up.

    1. @ mse326: Now show us that you're learning how to be a lawyer, by arguing the other side, please.

      1. Ethics rules forbid me from making a frivolous argument

        1. There's nothing frivolous about the other side. If the class is a 400 person lecture, it might not matter, but in smaller classes, one can learn more when one's classmates are engaged and participating. In many law schools, in fact, (though my sense is fewer than in the past) the primary method of learning comes from interactions between professor and students.

          1. Again then the student is making the choice to lose out or hinder his learning. If they truly learn more and the student cares they will go. If they don't and they don't learn as much as well it will reflect in their grade and it will be their doing. There is no good reason to mandate attendance instead of relying on personal responsibility. In fact in a professional school we should do quite the opposite. Foster personal responsibility at every step as much as possible.

            1. If you are in law school, I hope you learn to do a better job responding to opposing arguments before you actually go into practice. Hint: you have to address those arguments, not just repeat the same thing you said originally.

              Your argument is based on the mistaken premise that the only purpose of you being in the classroom is to benefit you.

  4. Somewhat off-topic: Has anyone used a green screen that attaches to the back of your chair, like the one pictured at the end of Professor Blackman's post? How was your experience with it?

  5. On another note, why is there an assumption that everyone has a camera. And if they don't are they required to buy one? Now the cost is even greater even if the money is a drop in the bucket compared other costs.

    I have a built in camera on my laptop. I don't have one for my desktop. But I would definitely rather use my desktop which is far better for zoom and/or skype calls. If required to use a camera I'd use my laptop and the whole experience would be far less helpful in learning.

  6. I am taken aback by the statement that some professors forbid students to go to the bathroom absent a medical excuse. Really? I've never heard of that. People often have an urgent need to go to the bathroom in the absence of an ongoing medical condition for which they could obtain a medical excuse.

    1. Me too. I have never heard of a situation where someone was "prohibited" from using the restroom, except maybe on an airplane during takeoff or something. How truly bizarre. I wonder what would happen if a professor tried to enforce such a policy.

      1. There is no shortage of fascism in academia.

        Read _The Student as Nigger_ -- or can I still cite that title?

        1. I tried to find that title on Amazon, but couldn't to it for whatever reason and instead was introduced to 6 different mutts presented as the "dogs of Amazon."

          1. Interesting. I found some stuff blocked too.
            Here's the first chapter, which is the best.

        2. WTF is fascist about that?

          1. Denying someone a biological need, i.e. urination or defecation, simply because you can -- that's not fascism?

            1. "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’."

              — Orwell, Politics and the English Language

              1. "Fascism: a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control."

                --- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

                1. The Nazis were well known for telling people that they had to wait 30 minutes before they could take bathroom breaks.

        3. Sorry, thought you were attacking the essay. I read parts of it in high school, and did not think it was fascist.

  7. Students in virtual classes don't need to GO to the bathroom. They can just keep portable urinals, such as are used in hospitals, under their desks, and use them when they need to, without leaving their seats. Unless they have diarrhea or fecal incontinence, what's the problem with that? I use my hand-held bathroom all the time while video-chatting.

  8. Bandwidth is a valid argument against mandatory video. Educational campuses are usually well supplied with good internet, but once you leave the city things get very different. My niece is in a rural area and they only have cell phone data, They have two unlimited data plans but those are throttled after 20 gig. My parents used to live 15 miles from a major metro area, and their only internet option was a slow wireless canopy system. Good luck making any kind of streaming connection after a MS update.

    1. Last I checked, Cable TV Internet had a download speed and a much lower upload speed, and that was to the *street* (those served by their box bolted to a telephone pole) and not the individual subscriber.

      So even if you are in a major metro area, if you are living in a neighborhood full of college kids, all of whom are concurrently Zooming. that upload band is going to get very narrow.

      As to FERPA, this is the best I can find, and it's an official ED site:

      It's mostly about K-12 because that is where the issues have been (mostly companies seeking to use PII to market to children, much to the chagrin of their parents) but this is interesting:

      Personally identifiable information (PII) is a FERPA term referring to identifiable information that is maintained in education records and includes direct identifiers, such as a student’s name or identification number, indirect identifiers, such as a student’s date of birth, or other information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information. See Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations, 34 CFR § 99.3, for a complete definition of PII specific to education records and for examples of other data elements that are defined to constitute PII. [emphasis added]

      I'd argue that a photograph "can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity" but heaven knows what ED will decide when they finally have to.

  9. "Camera's on. Just has an EFF privacy sticker over it."

  10. That's silly. Why are they trying to move the classroom to the internet when online courses are already well established and the format very well known. Sure, there is the risk that an expert will do the course and score a double A plus and not the actual student but that's an issue that has been answered long ago. At some point you have to start treating adults like adults, if they can't do the work it will be obvious soon enough.

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